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Vega v. Commonwealth

Supreme Court of Kentucky

October 24, 2013


Released for Publication February 20, 2014.


COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Amy Rebecca Duncliffe.

COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Jack Conway, Attorney General, Carlos Aundra Ross, Special Assistant Attorney General, Larry S. Roberts, Fayette County Attorney.

OPINION OF THE COURT BY JUSTICE CUNNINGHAM. Minton, C.J.; Abramson and Noble, JJ., concur.


Page 622


Late on the night of January 9, 2010, Appellant, Erik Vega, was pulled over by Officer Thomas Perkins of the Lexington Metro Police Department. Officer Perkins stopped Appellant because one of the headlights on his vehicle, as well as the rear license plate, was not illuminated. Officer Perkins noticed nothing out of the ordinary as he obtained Appellant's driver's license and registration from the front driver's side window. Another Lexington police officer, Reed Bowles, arrived on the scene shortly thereafter. Officer Bowles approached Appellant's vehicle from the passenger's side. After shining his flashlight into the front passenger's window, Officer Bowles noticed the barrel of a gun protruding from underneath a toolbox sitting on the front passenger's seat. Officer Bowles informed Officer Perkins of the weapon's presence, at which point Appellant was asked to exit his vehicle. Officer Bowles recovered a loaded Ruger .40 caliber pistol from Appellant's vehicle. Officer Perkins then placed Appellant under arrest for carrying a concealed deadly weapon. A search incident to the arrest uncovered one Lorcet pill in Appellant's pocket. Appellant also confessed that one-half of a Lortab pill was located in his shoe.

On March 15, 2010, Appellant entered a conditional guilty plea in the Fayette District Court to two counts of second-degree possession of a controlled substance and one count of carrying a concealed deadly weapon. Appellant received a sentence of 180 days imprisonment, probated for two years, in addition to a $250 fine and forfeiture of his weapon. Within Appellant's guilty plea, he reserved the right to appeal the Fayette District Court's denial of his motion to suppress the evidence seized upon his arrest. It is from this denial that Appellant appealed to the Fayette Circuit Court and the Court of Appeals, both of which affirmed the district court's ruling. We granted discretionary review.

We begin our analysis by stating what this case is not. It is not a determination by this Court as to whether the weapon spotted by Officer Bowles was concealed. It is not a review of a motion to dismiss or a motion for a directed verdict due to insufficient evidence. Even so, the majority of Appellant's brief focuses on whether the apparent concealment of his gun constitutes a violation of KRS 527.020. We will not address the merits of that issue. The procedural posture in which this case comes before us is the correctness of the district court's denial of Appellant's motion to suppress, not the ultimate determination

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of guilt. If there was not sufficient cause to arrest Appellant, then the search of his person was not incident to a lawful arrest and any evidence obtained from the search should have been suppressed as fruit of the poisonous tree.

We utilize a two-step process when reviewing a trial court's suppression motion ruling. E.g., Adcock v. Commonwealth, 967 S.W.2d 6, 8, 45 5 Ky. L. Summary 15 (Ky. 1998) (citing Ornelas v. United States, 517 U.S. 690, 697, 116 S.Ct. 1657, 134 L.Ed.2d 911 (1996)). First, we must determine whether the factual findings of the trial court are supported by substantial evidence. Id. (citing RCr 9.78). If the factual findings are not clearly erroneous, then we must conduct a de novo review of the trial court's application of the law to the facts. Id.

The district court's ruling denying Appellant's motion to suppress was made on the record at the conclusion of the suppression hearing. The district court failed to render a written order of its findings of fact and conclusions of law. Fortunately, we believe that we can accurately determine the basis for the trial court's ruling from the suppression hearing record. See Coleman v. Commonwealth, 100 S.W.3d 745, 749 (Ky. 2002) (stating that evidence offered at the suppression ...

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